Learning to Drive in India

GaneshaI was surrounded by gods.

We were in the front room of a shop whose walls were full of four-armed Vishnus and Shivas. Hundreds of Ganeshas stared at us with their elephant heads. They were in all sizes, huge ones standing on the cement floor and smaller ones perched on shelves along the clay walls. They were made of many different materials; there were cloth gods, sandalwood gods, cement gods, and marble gods. The overwhelming scent of sandalwood pervaded the room.

“You are friends of Sanjay?”

We nodded.

“Then I will give you a very good deal.”

I moved to a tall wooden Ganesha and pressed my hand against the wall behind his many arms. Whether from the 120 degree Udaipur heat, the sandalwood, or hearing the same sentence 12,032 times in twenty days, I was getting light-headed.

“Once in a lifetime deal,” he sang.

I sat down on the floor. “Oh Ganesha, pull me through.”

“Ganesha is the remover of obstacles,” he said. “He can help you.”

We had come to India three weeks before and in that time I had been light-headed often. It came for different reasons: the heat was a major factor. As were the microbe Indian invaders in our intestines, which were at that moment attacking my comrade’s bowel on the floor of our hotel bathroom.

Most often, however, it was likely the result of two things. First of all, we’d found that adventure had a way of attaching itself to one in India, the way an annoying freeloader might attach himself to your Louvre tour. Since we’d arrived in Mother India, there had been arguments with locals over cow dung, terrifying rides on one lane highways, nosy alligators, uncaged tigers, elephants, and lepers. There would be a near plane crash, a swim in the Arabian Sea with a shark and a casino run that I would only forget through a bottle of local coconut hooch.

Second was the fact that I was in India. It was a realization that would at times cause me to look around and nearly faint from the hyper-reality of it all, as though the ride at EPCOT would stop and all of us would have to get off of A Little Ride through Rajasthan.

It never happened.

I rose and walked in a slow shuffle towards the open door to peek outside and get some stifling air. On the dirt road ahead of me, a cow was ambling towards the shop with a good-natured look on its face, its tongue swinging from its mouth like a pink necktie.


It walked past me and into the room, found itself a spot in between a few life-sized chess boards beneath a woven tapestry of Surya and settled down on the floor. My companion, The Doctor (the father of my unfortunate friend praying to Vishnu on the floor of a bathroom) looked down at it with no surprise at all. The Doctor was tall and unkempt, more like a drunken radio salesman than a respected doctor. Not one hair on his head went in the same direction. He looked over at me. “Are you feeling OK?”

Before I could answer, Sanjay – our guide, driver and guarantor of the deal of a lifetime – walked in and patted me on the back. “I was waving! You didn’t see me?”

“There was a cow.”

“Yes.” Sanjay’s lilting sing-song of Indian English was a little riper this afternoon; there was a lot of kick in his step. I nodded.

“Doctor,” he called, “have you found something you like?”

The Doctor made a few noncommittal gestures towards a deity or two. Sanjay fixed his cap and immediately insinuated himself between the Doctor and the salesman. The Doctor eventually chose a marble chess board set and a pizza cutter and haggled like an expert. He had once told me to choose two things – one thing you desperately wanted and one thing you could care less about. I assumed he wanted the pizza cutter.

The cow lolled its tongue and let out a great fart. We all looked at it. As I began wondering how this shop could provide room for another scent, the salesman said something to Sanjay and gestured to the cow. The Doctor tapped Sanjay’s elbow.

“He says that now he must feed the cow before he can feed his family.”

The Doctor ended negotiations, handed the man some rupees and we walked through the open front door onto the road. We walked towards Sanjay’s car, passing a crowd of men sitting in the growing shade of an eave and three girls drinking Cokes on a step. They smiled and I smiled back. Sanjay spoke the whole time, but I was exhausted and the late afternoon heat had brought out a headache from the dormant corridors of my brain.

We reached his car and Sanjay stepped onto the road in front of us. “I am drunk.”


“I am drunk. Very drunk.” He smiled.

“What have you been drinking?” I imagined an exotic local brew of holistic ingredients steaming in an earthen cup.


“Oh,” the Doctor said.

We all looked at his car, which wasn’t a car at all. It was a three-wheeled motorcycle-like vehicle with handlebars and a rounded black shell. It resembled one of those giant motorized football helmets that former pageant winners ride around in during halftime. We all stared at it in quiet until it dawned on us.

“Oh, you can’t drive,” I said.

“Yes, that is right.”

The Doctor and I looked at each other. Sanjay cracked open another can of Budweiser. There were four of us on the trip; me, the Doctor, one of his colleagues, and my friend (his son). We all got along quite well, but in terms of enjoying the real adventures of travelling in India, the Doctor and I saw eye to eye. We went to the derelict markets, poked our noses into the half-buried, eon old dungeons of palaces. We ate the most unidentifiable foods. And now, we were waiting for the next adventure, for if one thing were true in India, it was that adventure found you like Carmen Sandiego’s nemeses.

“You must drive,” Sanjay said. He was pointing at me.

“I can’t drive.”

The Doctor let out a howling laugh and climbed in the back of the football helmet. Sanjay led me with his empty hand onto the front seat, which I straddled. I gripped the handles and appraised them. “It’s stick, I can’t drive stick.” I meant this. Aside from one near-death experience on a tractor, I had had no experience driving stick. “I can’t do this,” I repeated.

“You will do this,” the Doctor said, “or you will swim home from Bombay.”

“It’s no problem!” Sanjay sang. He pressed my hands onto the handlebars and showed me how to shift by pressing in a button with my thumb and clicking forward the gauge on the handle. All the while, I kept repeating, “I can’t do this.” The Doctor was laughing and taking pictures. He asked Sanjay if he had another Budweiser.

I pulled out into the street that was now like Manhattan at rush hour and a dozen future news headlines flashed before my eyes. The world became beeping horns and shouting Indians. I drove as steadily as possible and moved ahead in the lane; I concentrated on both driving and Ganesha, the elephant head, the remover of obstacles.

I thought, boy do I have an obstacle for you now, Ganesha, old buddy!

Sanjay was standing on the side panel of the back bench shouting into traffic. We went past three women and he pointed his finger at them. “Prostitutes!” he told us. The Doctor laughed and snapped photos of me that I have to this day never seen.

Sanjay pointed me to a road on the right and I cut across traffic and turned, feeling the most terror I have ever felt not looking at a recently used pregnancy test.

“Go straight here. The dock is one hundred meters from here.”

“Good job,” the Doctor said.

I stopped in front of the dock and stood on quivering legs. The only thought in my head was that now I could brag about driving stick on another continent. Oh, and some other stuff about not being dead.

We walked towards the rowboat and the man signaled us in. He gunned the engine and we got it and headed out into the lake, towards our hotel, which stood in the middle. We lounged back and enjoyed the breeze as the sun made its descent in the late afternoon. Enormous birds were dipping into the lake for drinks of water.

“Those are big birds,” I said.

“Not birds,” the boatman said, “bats.”

And we were not surprised, because in India, adventure finds you.

  1. #1 by Amanda on March 21, 2013 - 1:17 am

    Funny story…

  2. #2 by greg galeone on March 21, 2013 - 4:44 pm

    good piece mister, mister, mister.

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